Sunday’s Overton’s 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway was full of storylines as the regular season draws one race nearer to its conclusion, but what were the top storylines of the day? NASCAR Editor David Morgan is here to break it all down.
Joe Gibbs Racing Finally Gets Their First Win of the Season
If anyone would have said prior to the season that Joe Gibbs Racing wouldn’t have their first win of the year until mid-July, you would have called them crazy.
Well, 19 races into the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season and JGR finally has their first win of the year as Denny Hamlin was able to use his four fresh tires from the final pit stop to his advantage, passing teammate Matt Kenseth with 33 laps to go and holding off a hard charging Kyle Larson for his first win since Richmond in September 2016.
With a win now in their back pocket, Hamlin and the No. 11 team are certainly breathing a sigh of relief.
“Just it’s a great feeling,” said Hamlin. “I know we’ve been getting better and better as the year goes on, but definitely needed a win for the organization and for myself and just kind of get some momentum going with the playoffs are coming up, so we’ve got to get going. Really this is awesome. We led a lot of laps for Safe Kids – FedEx donates $111 for the laps that we lead this season, so awesome for them to do that for the FedEx Cares program. Toyota, all their support, Coca-Cola, the Jordan brand – just couldn’t say enough about this race team. It’s a team effort and for them to do the extra work to get us – that engine change before qualifying was key and that pays off.”
Big Names Still Winless
While Hamlin was celebrating in victory lane, his win now marks 12 different winners in 2017, making it a real possibility that we could see more than 16 winners for the first time since the implementation of the playoff system, especially with the names out there that still don’t have a win.
Look at two of the top tier drivers at JGR, for example. Both Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth led laps on Sunday at New Hampshire, but for one reason or another weren’t able to capitalize. Kenseth had tire strategy not go his way, while Busch led 95 laps on the day only to have two late race speeding penalties derail his chances for the win.
In addition to the two at JGR, Clint Bowyer has yet to win, as well as Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Jamie McMurray, and others. Watkins Glen is coming up so AJ Allmendinger has a real shot at winning his way into the playoffs.
One thing is for sure, the next seven weeks will be crucial for those that have yet to win and have championship aspirations.
Desperation Time for Logano
With his Richmond win being ruled as encumbered and not counting toward a playoff berth, Joey Logano and his No. 22 team has been in a spiral since then, only finishing in the top-10 two times in the 10 races that have taken place since that time, and Sunday’s race at New Hampshire only brought more trouble.
After starting the day in 13th, a broken truck arm mid-way through the race relegated Logano to the garage for repairs and although the team made the fix and got him back on the track, he would finish the day in 37th place, tying his worst finish of the season.
The finish places Logano in an even more precarious situation as he now sits 52 points behind Kenseth for the 16th and final playoff position on points. However, that won’t matter if we get more than 16 winners this season, making a win crucial for the No. 22 team over the next two months in order to secure a playoff berth.
“We just broke,” said Logano. “Plain and simple. It is not good, at all. Right now we are in the position where we have to execute. We have to finish the best as possible and we didn’t do that today. We have to go back to work and make sure our cars stay together and we have to get faster. All three of our cars were a little off today. I guess Brad is probably the best driver at this race track and I try to learn from him and he was struggling out there with me.”
“It was a humbling day. This race team knows how to do this. All of Team Penske knows how to win races and make cars fast. They do it in a bunch of different series and have been doing it over here for years. We have to stay together. Stay as a team. Keep pushing. If it happens, it happens. Hopefully we can get some speed enough to squeak a win out before the playoffs and get our 22 Shell Pennzoil Ford into the playoffs.”
“We were in this spot two times last year in the playoffs. Must win. Back against the way. We won both times. The team has it in them. We just have to get faster to be able to do that. Our team executes well, we just have to have something to race with a little bit.”
Starting Position No Match for Larson
For Kyle Larson, it’s been starting position be damned over the last two weeks, as he has started dead last at both Kentucky and New Hampshire only to drive right through the field and finish second. At Kentucky, inspection issues didn’t allow Larson a chance to qualify and his New Hampshire pole run was disallowed after issues were found with the rear deck fin in post-qualifying inspection.
In both instances, the poor track position to start the race wasn’t much of a disadvantage for Larson as he was able to pick his way through traffic and move toward the front of the field. In Sunday’s race, he almost made it from worst to first, but ran out of time to get past winner Denny Hamlin in the closing laps.
So, what exactly happened in Friday’s inspection to drop him to the back of the field to start the race?
“We just got in trouble for the shark fin there on the rear deck lid,” said Larson. “I think with how fast we’ve been running and all that, NASCAR has kept a closer eye on our team in particular. What was going on with the shark fin wasn’t anything different really than the other teams tinker with, just trying to maximize their aero performance in their cars. We just got in trouble for it, so had to go to the back.”
“Obviously, I don’t think it really affected us, which is a good thing, because the little stuff that we got in trouble for so far hasn’t seemed to affect the performance. Just got to keep working hard on the areas of our race car that are legal and find some more speed that way.”
Larson is already without crew chief Chad Johnston for the next two weeks as a result of post-Kentucky penalties and the only question now is whether more penalties will be coming down from NASCAR this week that could have more of an effect on Larson regaining the points lead before the end of the regular season.
Track Enhancements a Win for the Magic Mile
For the third time this season, a track has employed the PJ1 Trackbite substance to improve the grip on the track’s surface. Following the lead of Bristol Motor Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway, New Hampshire applied the substance on the top and bottom groove, while leaving the typical middle groove that drivers normally use alone.
What resulted was one of the better races at the Magic Mile in recent memory as drivers were able to use the different grooves available and make passes with relative ease throughout the day. If Sunday’s race was any indication, the enhancements should be standard operating procedure at New Hampshire from here on out.
The only question now is what other tracks on the circuit would be well served to employ the same tactics.
I think it’s awesome,” said Larson. “I was surprised at how well it worked this weekend. I liked the element of it changing quickly and wearing out and then wearing out in different spots and stuff. You know, it just adds an element to us that we have to adapt to. In the past here at Loudon, you kind of just run the same line all race long, and today everybody I got around was running somewhat of a different line, and I thought that was a really cool thing.”
“Restarts were way more exciting, I thought. I thought you could run three or four different lanes, and a lot of times I found myself in a three‑wide situation. It was fun. I normally don’t ‑‑ not necessarily enjoy coming here, but it hasn’t been one of my favorite racetracks because it is so one lane, but today I thought there was a lot of different lanes you could run, and it was all because of the PJ1 that they put on the track. So, for sure I think NASCAR should look at doing it at other racetracks. When we did it at Charlotte, I don’t think it did ‑‑ I don’t think it was a good thing at Charlotte, so I almost think it’s better for tracks that have a slower pace and slower mid‑corner speeds already because it’s hard to get the courage up to enter in that stuff at those fast tracks because you don’t really know how it’s going to react. But here you’re going so slow in the corners, it’s not ‑‑ you’re not going to crash if you go in it.”
“I think ‑‑ I don’t know, I can’t think of tracks off the top of my head that you could run it at right now, but any track where I think the pace is slower, it would be a good thing.”